The first deployment of WiMAX in the United Arab Emirates has only recently taken place on the Dubai Metro, whilst the entire Kingdom of Bahrain has had access to this technology for over a year. Gareth van Zyl investigates the growing WiMAX footprint in this region and asks what effects LTE (Long Term Evolution) will have on WiMAX deployment here.
Somebody sitting in the Arabian Desert, pulling out their laptop and accessing the internet thanks to WiMAX is an image that crops up in this writer's mind when writing about WiMAX in the Middle Eastern countries.
In some areas in the Middle East, such as the UAE, this imaginative scene is still pure fantasy. In other countries here however it's already a reality. So, what exactly is WiMAX and what are the advantages or disadvantages it offers over fixed line broadband? Also, will LTE spoil WiMAX adaptation in this part of the world?
WiMAX (meaning Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access and based on the IEEE 802.16 Broadband Wireless Access standard) is a telecommunications technology that can provide up to 10 Mbps broadband speed.
In the early days of WiMAX it was commonly suggested that signals could reach up to a 48 kilometer range from a base station. Realistically however, the average range for WiMAX signals is likely to be around a 7-8 kilometer radius in what is called Non Line of Sight (NLOS) access, and up to 16 kilometers in Line of Sight (LOS) applications.
Where in the Middle East?
Seeing as WiMAX is regarded as a technology that can help developing nations catch up to developed nations when it comes to broadband access, there has been significant adoption of WiMAX in the Middle East.
There has been much media attention of late on how it has been implemented on the Dubai Metro as a backhaul for WiFi. This particular instance has been the first commercial implementation of WiMAX in the UAE, despite numerous tests being undertaken by Etisalat and Du with regard to WiMAX deployment.
Hatem Bamatraf, Senior Vice President - Network Development, Du, says, "we have designed a WiMAX backhauling network all the way along the track, wherever the metro is moving.
And on the same track we have designed an HSPA network. So, the primary backhauling, the WiFI will talk to the WiMAX and if the WiMAX station is down, it will automatically switch to the HSPA."
Bamatraf suggests that the UAE has not taken up WiMAX as widely as some of its neighbouring gulf countries have because the UAE already has a good fixed line broadband infrastructure in place. But the likes of Du will consider implementing WiMAX in areas in the country where it is practical to do so.
"If you go to an industrial area ... it might be very expensive for you to go and pick the ground or share the existing infrastructure, so, it might be easier and cheaper and faster to go for a wireless network and provide the services. And such technologies like WiMAX would be considered for such a plan," says Hatem Bamatraf.
Then there are other countries in the Middle East that have rapidly taken up WiMAX. The Kingdom of Bahrain is the first country in the world to have its entire country covered by WiMAX thanks to Menatelecom, a telecommunications provider in the Kingdom of Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia, also has a number of players who have been involved in WiMAX deployment. From Mobily to Go, these operators have broadened that country's WiMAX footprint significantly over the last decade. Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, now has full WiMAX coverage thanks to Mobily.
Abdul Aziz Al-Tammami, Chief Operations Officer of Mobily, says, "More than 16 major cities [in Saudi Arabia] are covered with Mobily's WiMAX network , and we are looking to more than 20 to be covered in the near future. We are working at a rapid pace to put the company well on its way to getting the entire kingdom covered soon, while boosting bandwidth in districts already covered".
LTE and WiMAX: Can they coexist?
Long Term Evolution (LTE) is a new radio standard being defined in 3GPP that is based upon the same technology as WiMAX. LTE networks will require new client devices and service providers will need to purchase new radio access network (RAN) equipment in addition to upgrading their backhaul capacity and core networks to handle additional IP-based traffic.
Where the current generation of mobile telecommunication networks are collectively known as 3G, LTE is 4G. It is already supported by a number of mobile operators, a few of which have secured spectrum for the earliest commerical deployments in 2010. Most operators will deploy in the 2012 or beyond timeframe.
Most major mobile carriers in the United States and several worldwide carriers announced plans to convert their networks to LTE beginning in 2009. The world's first publicly available LTE-service was opened by TeliaSonera in the two Scandinavian capitals Stockholm and Oslo on the 14th of December 2009. Seen as a replacement to WiMAX, LTE still hasn't arrived on the scene for most of the globe at the time of writing.
Many vendors have started to abandon WiMAX for the inevitable arrival of LTE, most notably the likes of Ericsson, Cisco and Alcatel-Lucent. Motorola therefore appears to be the last major vendor left when it comes to developing WiMAX infrastructure, but the company seems to be standing firm on its commitment to WiMAX.
Bruce Brda, senior vice president and general manager for Wireless Networks, Motorola Home & Networks Mobility, says, "WiMAX is a robust solution for providing broadband today in emerging markets as well as in more competitive developed markets. For example, WiMAX has the ability as a platform to meet the unique needs of operators like Clearwire in the United States and Imagine in Ireland".
Motorola's lead in WiMAX deployment has been outlined by the fact that it has contracts with more than 35 operators in more than 20 countries. But even Motorola is focusing on playing its part in LTE development.
Taking Motorola's dual-focus into consideration, there could be a case for both technologies in future. On the one hand WiMAX infrastructure, in its current phase of development, can be deployed anywhere in the world relatively cheaply and relatively quickly, and it's ideal for rural areas. On the other hand, with many mobile operators and vendors abandoning WiMAX projects and focusing on LTE instead, LTE might gauge much more traction.
Either way, with greater mobile internet adoption, it's looking likely that the scenario of somebody sitting in the Arabian Desert, pulling out their laptop and accessing the internet thanks to WiMAX or LTE will become a more pervasive reality in this region.
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